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26 Mar 2021 | 16:16

Hayley JarvisHayley Jarvis, Head of Physical Activity for the national mental health charity Mind, recently contributed to our online forum 'The Coalition Tackles...' on the theme of sport and physical activity’s contribution to mental health and wellbeing, and recovery from the pandemic. In this month’s ‘Thought Starter’ blog, she explains why now is the time for organisations from the sports and mental health sectors to come together and promote the agenda to key policy-makers. 

The last 12 months have been described as a ‘mental health emergency’, and I think it has been just that. If you'd have said a year ago that we'd all be staying home, not seeing our loved ones, working from home, with the impact on our lives, communities and economy, then we wouldn't have believed it. 

It's been a rollercoaster, certainly earlier on in lockdown, when we started to see a rise in levels of distress in the general population. That peaked in April and then plateaued as most people – in the general population at least – became more resilient. We started to adapt to a new ‘normal’ albeit with ongoing challenges brought on by the various restrictions, lockdowns and ‘return to activity’ roadmaps.


From our own research at Mind, we have found that one in five adults have experienced a mental health problem for the first time in the past year. Furthermore, two thirds of people with a mental health problem have told us it got worse as a result of lockdown, and then you can add in the fact that a quarter of people have been unable to access services when they needed to. 

If all of your coping strategies have been taken away, or if mental health services had to either stop or go online, which doesn’t work for everyone, then it's unsurprising to hear that things have got worse, and it’s really concerning. 

To put things in perspective, calls to our info line have doubled. Calls are more complicated, and are taking longer. There's more to work through and generally people are just needing more support. The Mental Health Foundation put out a report saying 8.5million extra adults and 1.5million additional children and young people will require mental health services in the coming years.

Mind image

What we have learned is that this can’t just be an immediate response. Which is why it’s been pleasing to see what I would call an awakening over the last 12 months of the crucial role that physical activity has in supporting our mental health. 

It’s also why, in my role as Head of Physical Activity for Mind, I’m so pleased that we have partnered with the Sport for Development Coalition to increase our influence and drive forward this agenda, with the aim of creating that system change which is needed in mental health. 

We are working together to develop a joint policy paper and plan to bring together key stakeholders for a series of round-tables to frame and advance recommendations for policy-makers and practitioners alike on how we can maximise the role that sport and physical activity can play in this context. Ahead of this we have put out a call for case studies, learning and evidence which can inform this work. To complement this, Mind has launched a survey for the sports and physical activity sector to enable us to take stock of the progress and understand where people are at.


Thanks to these developments, I think we're moving into an important period in shaping future policy and practice. We've got the evidence; we understand more about the changes to our lives due to the pandemic; now is the time to create that system change and I'm excited about that. 

We believe there should be a cross-governmental plan for mental health, and that sport and physical activity should be a core part of it. It is a vehicle for achieving those wider mental health outcomes, whether it's through participation, volunteering and coaching, or even spectating. 

Secondly, we want to see mental health really become embedded in sports policy, so it’s everyone's responsibility. We have got a duty of care to our staff, our volunteers and our participants, so we need to ensure people are educated and engaged and supported on that journey. Making sure they get the right mental health education at the right time is key.

Get Set to Go

Thirdly, how do we unlock discussion and debate about mental health and embed sport and physical activity as part of the solution? To be clear, it’s not the whole solution, but it can help to change people's lives and be an important part of a toolkit of support for mental health including medication, talking therapies and wider lifestyle changes. Whether that's through community mental health services, or building physical activity into social prescribing for people or supporting people  on waiting lists for IAPT services (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) services; at the moment many of these services are predominately target-driven, by working differently in those settings we could support people's mental health through physical activity as a non-clinical intervention, which can have clinical outcomes. 

Finally, we need to celebrate some of the amazing work that has happened across the sports sector and the voluntary sector. Think about the football club community trusts turning around food parcels and online Zoom sessions, the phone calls that have happened to people who are isolated. All sorts of clubs and organisations are pivoting to do something differently to support mental health. We do not celebrate this enough and I definitely feel there has been an awakening around the contribution of sport and physical activity to support better mental health.


We know that being active reduces the risk of developing depression by up to 30%, and for a large part of this last year it's been one of the only reasons that we've been able to leave our house. Now I think it’s about both sides of the equation coming together and collaborating, from the sport and physical activity side, and the mental health side. If organisations play to their strengths and expertise, then it can really be a winning formula. 

We're not expecting mental health professionals to be experts in physical activity or sport for development, and we're definitely not expecting those delivering sport and physical activity to be mental health experts. But we need to provide services that are safe, with escalation processes and signposting in place, with staff and volunteers adequately trained and supported. Plus we need time and space to reflect and offload after sessions, because sometimes we can get ourselves into challenging situations. 

This mental health emergency is going to have an impact for months and years ahead. But by coming together and working together, then I think we really have got the winning ingredients to tackle the crisis head on. 

Read the Request for Submissions for our joint policy paper. Send your submissions to [email protected].

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